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Executive Functioning: Building an Internal Clock

Children who struggle with executive functioning often have trouble dealing with abstract concepts. This weakness can affect everything from forming friendships to understanding history lessons, but there’s another big abstraction you deal with on a daily basis: time.

You’ve almost certainly experienced that feeling of "losing track of time," or even the way time seems to speed up or slow down in certain situations. This feeling is worse for kids with executive functioning issues, since they don’t have a baseline internal clock to operate from and therefore don’t know what a minute feels like. To these children, that number on the clock is essentially meaningless.

Like everything else, developing an internal clock is a learned skill — which means you can teach it to your child. Here’s how.

Ditch Digital and Go Analog

A digital clock is easier to read, but it doesn’t show the passage of time the way the hands on an analog clock do. If your child is told to be ready in 20 minutes, for example, she’ll just look up to see that the numbers on the clock have rather mysteriously changed. Substitute an analog clock instead. Frequent check-ins will show the big hand moving ever closer to the deadline, which gives a constant reminder of how quickly time really moves.

To help your child visualize time, purchase an inexpensive wall clock with a plastic face from a local office supply store. Very young children can begin learning to "feel" time with the Wondertime Clock template, a simple printout that allows you to replace numbers with animals for reference. The hands also get an animal: a fast hummingbird for the second hand, a squirrel for the minute hand and a turtle for the hour hand. These animals bring the speed of time to life in an accessible way.

The Working Clock

For older children, you can use that same wall clock as a "working clock." Whenever you have a deadline — whether it’s finishing a homework assignment or leaving for piano lessons — use a dry erase marker to mark it on the working clock. To do this, simply color in the "wedge" of time between the current location of the minute hand and where it will be at your deadline time. Encourage your child to check in to see how the minute hand moves ever closer to the end of the colored section.

Although these steps are simple, they’re powerful tools for making abstract time more visual. Doing so helps children internalize how the passage of time feels and assists in developing time management skills they can build on as they grow.

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